One of the great unknowable factors in NHL development circles is anticipating correctly when a young goaltender steps from promising prospect to legitimate No. 1 status.
Consider a trio of goalies in the spotlight during the first fortnight of the season, all of whom are approaching important crossroads in their respective careers – the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier, the Colorado Avalanche’s Semyon Varlamov and the Edmonton Oilers’ Devan Dubnyk.
Two are in the news for the right reasons – both Bernier and Varlamov are off to fabulous starts, as the Leafs and the Avalanche posted a cumulative 10-1 record in the early going. The other, Dubnyk, is at the opposite end of the goalie spectrum – lugging around a 5.43 goals-against average into Monday night’s date with the Washington Capitals and forcing people in Edmonton to wonder if, at the age of 27, he will ever be the legitimate starter that will carry the Oilers to championship heights.
The uncertainty over how good Bernier was/is was the primary reason the Maple Leafs were able to acquire him from the Los Angeles Kings for a relatively modest price: goaltender Ben Scrivens, forward Matt Frattin, plus a second-round draft pick.
Bernier was the 11th player selected way back in the 2006 NHL entry draft and the biggest stumbling block to his development was the fact the Kings took Jonathan Quick in the third round one year earlier. L.A. was a pretty terrible team back then – the Kings had three top-five picks between 2007 and 2009 – but when the team started to come around finally, Quick was given first shot at the starter’s job and he made the most of it. It forced Bernier to patiently wait, a la Cory Schneider, for his chance to play.
Around the NHL, the conventional thinking was that no one had seen Bernier play enough to justify giving up any assets of consequence for his rights. Never mind that last season, when Quick struggled in the early stages, the Kings turned to Bernier more frequently and he was excellent. In all, he put together a 9-3-1 record, with a 1.88 goals-against average. L.A. made the playoffs by just four points last year and most people will tell you privately that if Bernier had faltered in any meaningful way, they could have missed them altogether.
The Leafs saw that where others did not. So when Toronto pried him loose for the price they did, it seemed like a steal of a deal. Frattin wasn’t going to play a top-six role on the team and the Leafs projected Scrivens as a backup. To get a No. 1 goalie for that package puts a guy in line for GM of the year honors. Dave Nonis, take a bow. Nonis made his bones as a general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, sending a similar scattershot sort of a package (an aging Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld) to the Florida Panthers for Roberto Luongo. All Luongo did was win 30 games or more in his first six seasons with the Canucks and once won 47.
Even after having a so-so night Saturday, Bernier’s numbers are still spectacular – 1.75 GAA, a .946 save percentage. That’s great, but not as great as Varlamov, who is 4-0 in the early season, with a 1.00 GAA and .970 save percentage, tops among NHL starters.
The difference between Bernier and Varlamov is Avalanche paid a far heftier price to acquire Varlamov from the Washington Capitals two years earlier than the Leafs did for Bernier. Colorado gave up future first– and second-round picks and for a time, as the Avalanche stumbled around in the first half of the 2011-12 season, that 2012 first rounder looked as if it could be a lottery pick. In the end, Washington settled for the 12th pick and drafted Filip Forsberg.
Varlamov had two up-and-down seasons with the Avs. Last year, his GAA was a bloated 3.02 for a team that finished 15th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference. But this year, he looks confident and comfortable in the net, and surely took great pleasure in waxing his former mates last week en route to sharing player-of-the-week honors.
Colorado is an exciting offensive team – so deep that rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon is anchoring the third line for now – but the real difference between then and now is how well they are playing defensively under new coach Patrick Roy, who was my preseason choice as coach of the year.
The Avs are off to their best start since 1994-95, or their last year in Quebec, and Varlamov is making a strong case to be Russia’s starting goaltender in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics, if he keeps this up. Arguably, no player will face more pressure or scrutiny than the starting goaltender on the home team for a country desperate to win.
Varlamov is 25, the same age as Bernier.
Dubnyk, meanwhile, is 27 and on the final year of his contract. The fact that the Oilers put in a serious bid for Schneider at last year’s draft indicates that even they didn’t know what to make of Dubnyk – and if he could ultimately handle the starter’s role. On the plus side, Dubnyk is a popular and stand-up teammate, so the Oiler players want to see him succeed. But he needs to start playing the way Bernier and Varlamov are; otherwise, the Oilers may be scouring the European leagues and the rosters of NHL teams, trying to figure out which backup has the pedigree and ability to become a No. 1.
Nowadays, a goalie often needs to move at least once in his career before he gets a chance to be the undisputed starter. Half the No. 1s in the league meet that standard, including Tuukka Rask (Boston), Kari Lehtonen (Dallas), Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), Antti Niemi (San Jose). Even Luongo went from the New York Islanders to the Florida Panthers before settling in as the Vancouver Canucks’ No. 1 goalie. Nobody has to remind Leaf fans of what an unremarkable return they got for Rask (Andrew Raycroft, out of the league since the 2011-12 season).
The point is, goalie deals can be notoriously one-sided because if the player coming in falters in any meaningful way, and a GM gave up a lot to get an untried prospect, then that can be a firing offence. Many were up in arms (me included), when the Avs gave up so much to land Varlamov. Only now is it looking like an astute deal.
MORE GOALIE GAB: On Sunday, L.A. got a shutout from Scrivens who has yet to give up a goal this season in one start and one relief appearance. It was a great week for nominal backups. Another ex-Leaf, Jonas Gustavsson started in place of the injured Jimmy Howard and beat the Boston Bruins in a Monday matinee. In Winnipeg, Al Montoya pitched a shutout after Ondjec Pavelec got his first night off of the season in the victory over the winless New Jersey Devils. And Colorado is 5-0, thanks in part to a 39-save shutout by J.S. Giguere over the Bruins this past Thursday, the 37th of his career. Three of the four – Scrivens, Gustavsson and Giguere, have all been back-ups in Toronto within the past three years.
Personality-wise, Scrivens is the antithesis of Quick, who tends to be largely unapproachable for interviews. Scrivens is chatty and friendly – one reason his departure from Toronto was so mourned. Scrivens is a brainy Cornell grad and according to the Kings’ official website, he adorned his new goalie mask with two quotes from Shakespeare, one from King Lear and one from Macbeth. The idea was to come up with something that could vaguely relate to hockey – certainly a passion of the Bard of Avon’s if memory serves. From King Lear, Scrivens chose: ’Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.’ From Macbeth, he picked: ’The cry is still “They come!” Our castle’s strength will laugh a siege to scorn.’ “I just kind of skimmed through and did some web searches and ... tried to pick a couple that might loosely relate to hockey,” explained Scrivens. “But, obviously the reason they were chosen was King Lear was a king, and Macbeth was a king in the story. So that’s the tie-in, that they were both kings.”
AND FURTHERMORE: There’s a certain recklessness that you sometimes see in NHL rookies and the San Jose Sharks’ Tomas Hertl is a good example. Not only is Hertl leading the league with seven goals, but twice in the past two games, he just barely managed to escape injury. In Saturday’s win over the Ottawa Senators, he was shaken up after losing an edge and crashing into Clarke MacArthur. One game earlier, Hertl got hit in the head by Canucks defenceman Alex Edler, a check that cost Edler a three-game suspension. Hertl is a great talent, but just 19. It will be interesting to see if he can keep playing this way and avoid major injury. Too many teenagers could not ... Speaking of the injury-plagued, ex-Sen Martin Havlat is recovering from off-season pelvic surgery and is still not practising full-on with the Sharks. It will likely be the end of the month before he sees any action ... As if things aren’t bad enough already, the Philadelphia Flyers will have to do without Vincent Lecavalier for a week and Scott Hartnell for up to a month, after both were injured last week. Lecavalier was signed to centre the second line and take some of the scoring pressure off Claude Giroux, who finally hit the scoreboard after being shut out in his first four games. It’s not the ideal scenario for new coach Craig Berube who hopefully can find a way of getting Hartnell back on track. It was just two years ago that Hartnell scored 37 goals. Last year, he slumped to eight and this year, he was scoreless before getting injured.
AND FINALLY: Shane Doan’s two-point night in Phoenix’s Sunday win over the Carolina Hurricanes gave him 817 for his career, tied with Thomas Steen for second place in organization history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it also made him just the sixth player in the expansion era to score a goal in 18 consecutive years for the same franchise. The others are all in, or going to, the Hall of Fame: Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, Joe Sakic, Mike Modano and Nicklas Lidstrom ... How about Daniel Carcillo, getting a chance to play on the Kings’ second line with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards after Frattin had a slow start? Carcillo earned two points in Sunday’s win over Florida, the first time in almost two years that he’d managed a multiple point game. Carcillo is the sort of player that teases organization – hard to play against, hair-trigger temper, but a decent skill set. The Chicago Blackhawks tried Carcillo for a time with Patrick Kane. Given the sorts of edgy players Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter favours, it’s not surprising Carcillo will get a chance to play some meaningful minutes in L.A. too.
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